"Maggie, tell me what the word 'family' means to you?"
the interviewer asked.
She said, "A parent or parents with
a child or children."
"You use the word 'or' a lot. We prefer
'and' at the AFU. Mother and father. You see, of course, the distinction?
It's 'American Families United', except we like to say 'We-knighted.'
Listen: Do you think family is critical to the nation's survival?"
"I do," she lied.
It was the third association to interview
her. She had also lied to the MHA (Manufactured Housing Association) and
the AGA (Association of Gay Americans). "Alphabet soup," she
Her best friend Bonnie had suggested association
work. Bonnie knew Maggie was bright, a good writer, and passionate - passionate,
at least, to Bonnie, who knew the many things beneath Maggie's surface:
the scratch marks on her white walls, the great beasts beneath her beige
carpets, the guffaws behind her almost frowns and not-quite smiles. To
work with people emboldened by ideas would empower Maggie, as they say,
for Maggie was like that girl on the Brady Bunch: All she needed was to
practice walking with a book on her head, remove those ugly plastic glasses
and learn basic makeup technique. Then the veil would drop and flutes
would trill at the tying of her shoelaces and drums would roll at the
fastening of her bra. A Reverie for Maggie, playing all day long.
That morning they'd had a disagreement.
"Is this about you or me?" Maggie asked. "It's like you want this
job more than me. I don't like these association people. They're extreme.
They all believe one main thing and that's all."
"I'm just trying to help, Maggie,"
Bonnie said. "Really. You moved here after me and you're miserable,
and that makes me unhappy."
"Then I'll go home."
"What's at home?"
"But these people are extreme."
"They just have views, that's all.
There's nothing wrong with views. Besides, I bet there's all kinds of
people who just do their jobs and go home. People everywhere have their
"Anyway," Maggie said, "you're
not responsible for me. I'm not your child."
"I know that," Bonnie said, touching
Maggie's cheek. "I'm just trying to help. Don't think me a dirty
Maggie tucked a resume in her binder. "I'll
go," she said, wanting to add, "I made up 'dirty fish'. Don't steal
"You don't mind me saying 'dirty fish',
do you?" Bonnie asked.
"It's just a phrase," Maggie said. "Why
should I care?"
the man continued, "is our motto." He handed her a bumpersticker: "THE
AFU: WE-UNITED FOR AMERICA". Then he said, "According to this resume,
you're from Idaho?"
"Yes," she said, wishing she could erase
all the details her resume revealed.
"Idaho is strong on family. I'm from Wyoming."
"How'd you get here?"
"Lord knows," he said, rolling his eyes.
"A friend came first," she said.
"So why did your friend come?"
"She's in graduate school."
"Oh," he said.
"It's just -" he started, but
Maggie's mother said. "It's all because of Bonnie Miller, isn't it?
Bonnie Miller's been leading you by the hair since eighth grade."
"Bonnie Miller's got nothing to do
with it. You've got to have a roommate in big cities."
Her father chewed on his pipe stem, cherry
smoke filling the room. "Washington is full of blacks and politicians."
"Maybe I'll marry a black politician."
"Don't try to shock us, young lady,"
her mother said.
"She'll come home with Jesse Jackson
on her arm."
"It's too liberal there," her
"I'm going for no reason at all,"
Maggie said. "Isn't that good enough?"
"We know why you're going," her
"You better hold an aspirin between
your legs," her mother said.
Maggie bit a dictionary full of curses down
into her bottom lip, ran into her bedroom and slammed the door. The dirty,
dirty fish, she thought.
the interviewer said, "I need an assistant. It's not glamorous. Some
girls - women - interview here because they think it's TV stuff. There's
no Sam Donaldson, okay? I've been on CBN seven times. If you think you've
seen me, that's probably where."
Her parents watched CBN, but he hadn't looked
familiar, until just now that she finally saw his face. She hadn't looked
at him before, not long enough to focus past a blur. Now she saw he was
attractive, except for two thingies - she could only think to call them
- on either side of his nose. They were not moles or warts, but some type
of protrusions. It was difficult not to look at them. They drew her attention
first, before the eyes or nose or mouth. Maggie knew women had turned
him down because of the thingies. And now she remembered the face with
thingies on TV, but she couldn't place the name.
"It's a lot of scheduling and computer
work, filing," he said. "Sometimes you'll accompany me, but
it's mostly waiting rooms for you. And there's something more. This is
not a family town." He patted her hand. There was no ring where it
should be. "They laugh at our beliefs."
before she left for Washington, her father took her to Sam's. They drank
"You watch out for that place,"
"Yeah, but that place if full of -"
"It's full of dirty fish," she
was going to say. "But so is here."
"It's full of predators," he finished.
"I'm nothing special," she said.
"Men don't chase me."
"Well," she said, sipping the
drink, and then she caught her father looking at her. He fiddled with
his napkin. His lips moved but failed to form words.
"It's not the way it used to be, dad,"
"It wasn't when it was."
"So then what's the big deal about
"It's just not how we believe there,"
"You don't sound all that convinced."
On the way home she watched her breath fog
the car window, then dissipate. Whenever they came to a traffic light
or stop sign, her father sighed. He's not such a dirty fish, she thought.
you want the job," the interviewer said, "you start tonight.
There's a meeting of the AFU. I need you to take notes. You'll have a
guest pass. Just sit in back and take notes. Three main speakers will
each address one of three topics: faith, hope and charity."
There had been three sisters in her high
school named Faith, Hope and Charity, each one a year older than the next.
Whatever the parents' intent, the names became a joke around school. The
boys all said: "I've got faith I'll fuck the oldest, I hope I get
the middle and for charity I'll screw the third."
really got the job?" Bonnie asked.
"And you start tonight?"
"I just take notes."
"Hmm," Bonnie said.
"Why? You sound suspicious."
"I'm not suspicious. But it's awfully
fast to start a job. Was it a man who interviewed you?"
"What does that have to do with it?"
"I'm hungry," Bonnie said.
"You don't eat 'til 7:00."
"You get a job and now you're mom."
"I'm not mom. I thought you'd be happy."
"You just better watch out," Bonnie
"Watch out for what?"
"You know what I mean. Why do you always
act like - like you don't want anything and nothing's important to you?
That everybody else is weird because they believe something and you just
float off in between?"
"Where's this coming from?"
"Where's it coming from?" Bonnie
shrieked, and then she bit her lip and ran into her bedroom, slamming
was kissing Maggie's closed mouth. The sudden weird violence came out
of the air like rain in sunlight: It didn't belong, but there it was,
sudden and sunlit.
"Which one are you?" he demanded.
"Faith or Hope or Charity?
"None of them!"
"Faith or Hope or Charity?"
She barely recognized him. He was new in
"I'm no charity case," the boy
Then Bonnie pulled him off and it was over,
as if Maggie had never been touched, as if it didn't happen.
"It didn't happen," Bonnie proclaimed.
"It didn't happen," Maggie repeated.
"Not if you believe me," Bonnie
added, touching Maggie's cheek.
dropped her off at the airport. They both said they couldn't come inside,
couldn't bear it. They never imagined they would say goodbye to their
daughter. Maggie wished she'd had an older brother, to go first and do
worse, to draw attention and take the heat. But she was on her own.
She really had no reason for going. Bonnie
was already there and had an apartment and needed a roommate, that's all.
What was Maggie to say, "I'll miss Love Boat reruns"? There
was no defense. She also had to admit that whenever Bonnie suggested something,
she usually went along. If Bonnie believed, Maggie believed. Bonnie had
enough belief for both of them. Maggie might not jump off a bridge if
Bonnie jumped first, but if they joined hands and Bonnie said the water
was deep enough and it was safe, she might jump still.
True, this power had weakened since summer,
when Bonnie moved and Maggie was left by herself. She spent more time
alone, and for some reason occasionally remembered that time with the
boy. It really had happened, and some other things Bonnie promised never
did happen. But these questions faded when Bonnie started calling long
distance, saying she needed Maggie.
When Maggie walked into the airport - the
white box of an airport that seemed empty of everything but exits and
entrances and signs pointing everywhere and nowhere - she had a bad feeling
there was as much reason to stay as there was to go. The thought of doing
either, of changing her mind or not, made her no less nauseous than the
Since there was an hour before her flight
left, she went to the bar and ordered White Russians. On a napkin she
drew arrows pointing this way and that, and then she started writing down
the words of passersby, jumbled conversations, all noted in tiny letters
inside the circle of spilled Kahlua and vodka and creme. She jotted without
regard to order but to the spaces and the sighs.
"School boys get fat fat all the high
high the how many days you'll come home Bob sure is one hell flight school
boys get bad out there got fat all the you should there well one day you'll
fat one day you'll come how you'll come how you have don't know what you
see in new bad they need to builds a bad out there come how sure is one
nice being home Bob sure is one bitch I owe you a good flight."
no noise from Bonnie's room as Maggie prepared for the meeting. She tried
on twelve different tops and settled for the one that pushed up and together
the most, because it - because Bonnie said she liked it best, so it must
She plucked her eyebrows. She heard a sing-song
voice: "I wonder what I want tonight, what I want to happen tonight,
"What I want, what I want?" Maggie
The thought stayed after her. It would not
let her go.
"You tell me," Maggie thought,
"what I want."
"Whatchoo want, want, want, girlfriend.
You know. Oooooooh yeah, you know. You never even asked his name. The
way you saw his face all blurry, that's what you do with sound, too. World
sure is fuzzy to you, girl. Girl, you live in a fuzzy old world."
She took a cab to the auditorium. She listened
to the voice all the way there.
for the man whose name she had forgotten and tried to figure out where
she might have heard a voice like the voice she was thinking in and tried
to figure out how you handle a coatroom - do you tip at first or after,
and how much do you tip, and when, and when? And it wasn't helping, the
"Girl, you is stupid" and the "Should have got his name,
ya damn dumb dame."
Then she remembered she had no paper and
she found a table, the only one with just one empty seat. She sat down,
relieved she at least had a pen and that beneath her glass of water was
She thought of the bar at the airport. She
thought of the CBN. She had seen a man with thingies on that channel.
His name was Ben.
Ben, Ben, she thought, and then the first
speaker was speaking, on the subject of Faith. Maggie jotted without regard
to order but to the spaces and the sighs.
"You'll do better. This was a catastrophic
change which I learned pretty well. He, you, we go in this regard, in
seminary. So I was a bachelor to some. Look, simply got caught up in an
old dialogue. Boggles my imagination. To protect the world. Well, go look
at the old dialogue. Boggles my imagination to think. I learned pretty
well. The birth of attention to family. Do good retail and you'll do better.
Got caught up in an old dialogue. Boggles the divorce rate. Do good retail
and the history salesman. Do a little Czar. Do good, father time. Do good
retail. Do a little Czar."
do we have here," Ben said, snapping the napkin right out of her
hand. "Why this -"
"I have to type it up," she said.
"I can hardly read my own handwriting."
"I can read it fine," he said.
"But I can't make any -"
She turned around and took it back, snapped
it right out of his hand. "I'll type it up," she said, and she
knew that whoever the sing-song voice belonged to was smiling, in her
imagination, or wherever she was, because she heard or thought or was
thought: "Girl, now you know: You go and glow."
a dirty fish," Maggie said, rolling over in Ben's big bed, the biggest
she had ever slept in besides her own.
"You said that in your sleep,"
Ben said. "What's it mean?"
"It means the fish seem bright and
clean, long as they stay underwater. But if they come out, they're not
so clean. They're not so clean in the sun and air."
"You're talking about I'm not married
but I work for the AFU?"
"That's one thing."
"Well, I've got time, Maggie. The Lord
wasn't married and look what He did for the family."
"So you really believe in - in what
"I've got three bumperstickers on my
car. Why shouldn't I believe what I believe?"
"Last night, my roommate said I try
and stay in between things."
"Nobody likes to be wrong, I suppose.
But you've got to take a leap sooner or later."
"A leap of faith."
"But I could leap in any old direction."
"That you could," he said, "just
like a dirty fish."
He tried to pull her over to his side of
the bed, but she resisted and buried herself in the covers.